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The Missile Technology Control Regime at a crossroads

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) launches a Tomahawk cruise missile. Photo: US Navy/Jonathan Sunderman.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) launches a Tomahawk cruise missile. Photo: US Navy/Jonathan Sunderman.

The announcement on 16 September of the Australia–United Kingdom–United States (AUKUS) trilateral defence partnership generated strong diplomatic responses and media attention. Concerns have mostly centred on the fact that the partnership means that Australia has unilaterally terminated an ongoing multi-billion-dollar submarine contract with France, a key ally in the Indo-Pacific, and will receive naval nuclear propulsion technology from the UK and the USA. However, another striking aspect of the partnership was largely drowned out by the noise of the ensuing diplomatic quarrel: Australia also announced that it would acquire Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles from the USA. This sale of missiles could deal a blow to one of the few remaining multilateral instruments for addressing missile proliferation—the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

The MTCR is a multilateral export control regime that brings together 35 missile technology supplier states to coordinate their controls on exports of missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and related dual-use goods and technologies (see figure 1). The participating states (the Partners) agree to exercise an unconditional ‘strong presumption of denial’ on transfers of complete missiles and other unmanned delivery systems capable of carrying a payload of 500 kilograms to a range of at least 300 kilometres (classified in the MTCR Annex as Category I systems). This presumption is not an outright prohibition but it is widely viewed as a way of helping to establish a global norm aimed at preventing the uncontrolled proliferation of delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and encouraging states to exercise restraint in transfers of missile technology. The decision by the USA—one of the regime’s founders and most active participants—to export Tomahawk missiles that can deliver a 500 kg payload to a range of more than 1000 km runs the risk of further undermining this norm.

Next week, the MTCR Partners will be meeting in Sochi, Russia, to resume the formal meetings of the MTCR, two years after its last plenary in October 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. However, because of surging Covid-19 infection rates, low vaccination rates and stringent public health rules in Russia and in a number of other Partner countries, some of the 35 Partners from around the globe may be unable to attend. The US decision to export Category I systems will probably be a source of tension and disagreement during the meeting but this is just one of the many challenges facing the MTCR. These challenges concern both wider international missile non-proliferation efforts and specific operational and topical issues for the regime.

The MTCR and missile non-proliferation: A fragile norm

The MTCR is a cornerstone of states’ efforts to control the development, proliferation and use of missiles and other WMD delivery systems. While the international community seeks to prevent destabilizing build-ups of missiles and other delivery systems and their use by non-state actors, missiles and other delivery systems continue to be an essential component of many states’ military forces. Therefore, unlike chemical, biological and nuclear (CBN) weapons, missiles remain a weapon category that does not have an international treaty establishing a clear norm against, prohibition of or limits on their development, production, proliferation or use.

States have instead focused on applying restraint and particularly restrictive rules on transfers of ballistic missiles and other delivery systems that are capable of carrying CBN weapons. This has resulted in a partial and fragmented array of international instruments—including United Nations Security Council resolutions, codes of conduct and non-binding regimes—that govern specific types of missiles and other delivery systems, trade in missile technology, and the behaviour of states possessing, developing and testing missiles. The MTCR effectively sets international standards for export controls on missile technology, as its control lists and guidelines are adopted by, or form the basis of controls for, many states beyond the MTCR Partners. Moreover, the MTCR is a unique forum in that it assembles the expertise and experience of technical, licensing and enforcement experts in the missile technology domain, and continuously assesses new missile technologies and their non-proliferation implications. In addition to the MTCR, the most substantive elements of the missile non-proliferation framework are the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC) and UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

A spanner in the works: Operational and topical challenges to the MTCR

Despite the measures under these instruments, horizontal and vertical proliferation of missiles continues in many states and threatens regional and international stability. Indeed, current evidence of regional missile proliferation, particularly in East Asia and the Middle East, is indicative of several trends that undermine the effectiveness of these instruments. The MTCR itself also faces serious long-standing and more recent challenges to its functioning and with regard to specific topics on its agenda.

Inherent and structural challenges

Questions—particularly from non-participating states—persist on the degree of exclusivity and transparency of MTCR deliberations. However, much of the MTCR’s effectiveness stems from the fact that its guidelines are made and applied by many of the most significant suppliers of missile technology. Although the MTCR Partners continue to work towards universal adherence to the MTCR guidelines and increasingly engage with some non-participating supplier states, the regime remains closed to most other states. Striking a balance between transparency, engagement and necessary confidentiality, while making voluntary adherence to the MTCR guidelines attractive to non-participating states, is one of the regime’s long-standing challenges. This is only exacerbated by increasing diffusion of missile technologies, know-how and means of production—particularly in regions where missile proliferation has long been a concern, such as the Middle East.

Some non-participating states have previously criticized the MTCR as being a cartel that deprives other states of their right to obtain civilian rocket and space launch technology. However, the MTCR Partners’ control over missile technology was never exclusive and high-profile proliferation cases, such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, resulted in reforms of the MTCR’s approach to export controls and the scope of the control lists. As transfers of missile technology by non-participating states continue and the level of sophistication of the missile arsenals of states like Iran and North Korea increases, it is difficult to make a case that the MTCR represents a cartel. North Korea, for example, recently tested a new train-based missile transportation and launch capability as well as a long-range cruise missile. Such developments are both a challenge to the effectiveness of the MTCR and an opportunity for the regime to emphasize the value of its guidelines and control lists for global non-proliferation efforts.

The membership challenge

The MTCR was founded by the Group of Seven (G7) largest industrial states in 1987 and expanded to include most of the leading suppliers of missile technology. Even several states that had previously strongly opposed the MTCR, for example Brazil and India, eventually joined and have been actively involved in the regime’s work. However, several key producers and exporters of missiles, for example Israel, do not participate in the MTCR. Particularly significant and challenging is that China—which has transferred missile technology to a variety of recipients over the years, including to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (see the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database), and allegedly provided significant assistance to others, including Iran and North Korea—remains outside of the regime.

China has previously declared its adherence to the MTCR guidelines and has engaged with the regime, most recently restarting dialogue through a meeting with the then New Zealand chair of the MTCR. Moreover, China recently took significant steps to strengthen its national export control system and signalled increased willingness to join and participate in international frameworks promoting restraint in arms transfers by, for example, joining the Arms Trade Treaty in 2020. However, China’s record of missile transfers is likely to remain a source of concern for some of the MTCR Partners. In addition, China’s growing geopolitical competition with the USA and others makes it highly unlikely that the MTCR Partners would find the required consensus to approve a possible Chinese membership application. The Russian chairing of the MTCR for the next 12 months could present an opportunity for more constructive engagement with China and other non-participating states.

Operational challenges

Many multilateral and international treaty organizations and mechanisms struggle with participating states not meeting their financial obligations or not committing resources necessary for assuming the position of chair. The MTCR has at times experienced difficulties with identifying a participating state willing to chair the regime—last failing to do so for the period 2018/19. Although the issue is not exclusive to the MTCR, this makes it the only multilateral export control regime to have failed to appoint a chair on three occasions since its inception. Because the 2020 plenary was cancelled and at least one Partner blocked any possible agreement on alternative virtual meeting formats, the outgoing Austrian chair was given little opportunity to try to resolve the MTCR’s current challenges. It will now be on Russia to shape the discussions and efforts undertaken by the MTCR over the coming year, before handing over to Switzerland in October 2022.

Technology-related challenges

Technology-related developments are fuelling difficult discussions on the potential need for the MTCR to expand its control list and adjust its definitions and guidance materials. The rapid advances in, and increasing diffusion and adoption of, so-called emerging technologies—including additive manufacturing and hypersonic boost-glide vehicles—put into question whether the MTCR’s coverage of relevant production technologies and advanced missile systems is sufficient.

Missile technology has matured significantly and the required technical know-how has become much more accessible. In recent years, scientific work and technical development have increasingly moved from state-run or state-controlled entities to the commercial aerospace industry. The ‘New Space’ industry, in particular, is becoming an area of concern and the target of export control outreach. The growing privatization of the space industry means that the number of relevant stakeholders has risen dramatically and that sensitive technology and know-how are far more readily accessible outside of national and international space programmes than previously. Many of the start-ups, companies and research institutes thriving in the New Space industry have only limited experience in export controls and compliance. Therefore, it is important that the MTCR Partners raise awareness of export controls among these stakeholders and support them in strengthening compliance.

Covid-19-related challenges

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the operations of all the multilateral export control regimes and in particular the MTCR. The resistance shown by some Partners to holding official virtual meetings instead of in-person regime meetings and the limited ability of the chair to conduct in-person outreach missions and other consultations demonstrated the disruptive impact of the pandemic. The plenary—the MTCR’s main decision-making body—had to be cancelled in 2020, without replacement, and the consensus-based regime has been unable to agree to have formal meetings in any virtual format since the beginning of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Even with the 2021 plenary set to take place, the public health situation and the pandemic-related restrictions in many of the Partner countries and in the host country itself could mean that fewer delegations and licensing, enforcement and technical experts participate than usual, thus reducing the likelihood of progress on many of the issues on the MTCR’s agenda.

Next steps and the future direction of the MTCR

New initiatives and strengthening resilience

Despite the various challenges it faces, the MTCR has also been successful in some areas where it sought to modernize practices and engage in more dialogue with the other export control regimes. For example, it is the first regime to set up a more formalized mechanism, through its technical experts meeting (TEM), to engage directly with the technical experts of the other export control regimes. This is an important step in addressing cross-cutting challenges and technological developments. Likewise, the MTCR Partners have learned lessons from the period 2018/19—when no participating state stepped up to take over the regime’s chair—by deciding on the following three chairs well in advance. The regime has also taken some notable steps towards more public engagement and transparency, including by expanding its online presence through an official Twitter profile, reporting on outreach activities to non-participating states and—most recently—issuing a newsletter providing at least a brief account of the work of each of the regime’s subsidiary bodies. While the pandemic will hopefully remain a temporary obstacle to the smooth operation of the MTCR, the weaknesses exposed and challenges faced could nonetheless provide an opportunity to reflect on and strengthen the resilience of the MTCR.

Quo vadis MTCR?

In the current situation, maintaining and strengthening the MTCR and the fragile norm against missile proliferation that it supports is an ever more important task. The MTCR is the main supply-side-oriented non-proliferation tool in the area of missiles and other delivery systems, and is the only forum that brings together so many of the main suppliers of missile technology for discussions at the political and technical levels. As such, the MTCR will continue to play a crucial role in both informing and structuring broader efforts to govern the production of, trade in and use of missiles.

The ongoing geopolitical tensions between Russia and the large group of West European and North American states in the MTCR will not make this feat any easier to accomplish. However, the MTCR has also shown resilience and demonstrated its ability to evolve and take small steps to reinforce the regime. As one of the very few multilateral forums left in which diplomatic and technical experts from Europe, Russia and the USA (and from many other states) actively work together on finding non-proliferation solutions in the area of missiles, it is key that the regime is further strengthened and equipped to weather the challenges it will face over the coming years.

To support and inform efforts in this direction through dedicated research, analysis and stakeholder dialogue, SIPRI has begun a 20-month project conducting a comprehensive assessment of the MTCR’s current situation, with generous support from the German Federal Foreign Office and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. As part of this project, SIPRI will analyse a selection of key challenges facing the MTCR and organize a series of webinars and multi-stakeholder dialogues. These will provide an opportunity to bring together internal and external perspectives on the MTCR from technical and policy experts, for a valuable exchange on important missile technology export control topics. The project seeks to generate targeted input and recommendations for the MTCR Partners on many of the most pressing challenges, and to develop a vision of how to set up the MTCR for the future.


Kolja Brockmann is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control programme.